Leo Varadkar is one of us, yet with an outsider's keen eye
Leo Varadkar stepped in where his colleagues in Government wouldn't, and called it like it was
It is perhaps not surprising that it took the son of an immigrant to change everything 10 days ago. In a sense, we are all insiders when it comes to the culture of the cops. We all grew up, to some extent, in a country where no one really raised an eyebrow when you got a "decent" cop, a "sound" guy, who let you off something. We all grew up in a culture where rules were made to be broken.
Among the force, you can imagine how the whistleblowers might have been seen by some as prissy. Traffic cop stuff is child's play next to real crime and fighting terrorists, isn't it? And there was a touch of that in all of us. No one really got that exercised even when it became clear that the internal Garda report on the penalty points was inadequate. Even when the Inspectorate report came out, vindicating the whistleblowers, and it emerged that the powers that be within the force had essentially buried the penalty points thing, there was no great clamour for the Commissioner to go or anything.
And then the son of an immigrant changed everything by making an intervention that demonstrated the kind of decency we like to pride ourselves on in this country. Last Thursday week, Leo Varadkar stepped in where his colleagues in Government wouldn't, and called it like it was. And not only did he say the whistleblowers – who have endured horrific smearing both publicly and in private, smearing campaigns that would shock you – were not bad people, he said they were good people. He thanked them and directly linked them to saving lives on the road, thus directly linking the culture of penalty points quashing to causing deaths on the roads.
Leo also took a stand against his own party and the culture there, which has been a culture of political expediency around this issue. Varadkar stood in sharp contrast to the shiftiness, the crankiness, the arrogance and the endless long statements from the Minister for Justice explaining why various things are not his fault.
People instinctively know that the truth is simple. And that the person telling the truth is usually not defensive, or dismissive, or arrogant. And Varadkar spoke very simply and very plainly that day at the Road Safety Authority conference. And for a moment it almost seemed as if we were getting the new politics we were promised when this Government came to power. And suddenly it seemed as if the gulf between Leo and Enda was as great as the gulf between Leo and the old Fianna Fail.
Of course Varadkar's comments were not taken at face value. Of course they were regarded as a calculated ploy. This was Leo's tilt at the leadership. It was to go one better than Simon Coveney, who had come out on the issue in this paper the previous Sunday.
And you know, maybe that is true. Maybe ambition came into it. But if Leo's is the kind of ambition that will make a man tell the simple truth when no one else will, when ambition makes a man use his position to rehabilitate and redeem not just two wronged men, but a whole political chapter, then maybe that's not bad ambition.
I tend to believe there was more than ambition at play here. I tend to think that Leo felt this genuinely. I tend to think that Leo had skin in the game, that his own family was touched by this, and that that changes everything. I also tend to take with a pinch of salt the rubbishing of politicians who stand up against their own, call them the political whistleblowers. Take anyone who walked from Labour – suddenly the willing ranks of the pol corrs tog out to support the Pat Rabbittes of the world in telling us how they are drama queens looking for attention who should have just acted responsibly and gone along with things like everyone else.
And always they blame ambition and attention-seeking, whether you are Lucinda Creighton and her convictions or Colm Keaveney and his belief that Labour was no longer the Labour Party he joined the day it started taking resources from disabled people. They are all smeared publicly and privately, like the whistleblowers, because they wouldn't go along with the way things are done and always have been done.
I also believe Leo might have been just speaking his truth on this occasion because Leo has, as they say, form in this area. Leo has form in saying things that are not necessarily going to win him friends or further his ambitions. But astonishingly, for an Irish politician, he seems to say them because he thinks them.
Leo might prefer to forget some of his more controversial utterances, like his idea for paying immigrants to go home, which was viewed as being aimed at Africans. He also got in a bit of hot water for suggesting women of a certain age liked Gabriel Byrne. The re-emergence of political correctness somehow viewed that as sexist and ageist. To some of us, it just looked refreshingly like a minister who was prepared to get stuck into a bit of argy-bargy with a sacred-cow celeb who attacked him in a roundabout way (by attacking The Gathering). Leo has also taken on other sacred cows in Ireland, such as our fabled welcome, when he criticised customer service in the tourism industry.
Varadkar has also been willing to defecate on his own doorstep
before now. He was prominent in the heave against Enda Kenny. He has also been critical of the fact that the Government has too much control over the Oireachtas. He said this as a sitting front-bench minister. He has also shown an unusual willingness to apologise for things, something that seems beyond most of his colleagues. It was Leo who came out and apologised for the Government's handling of water charges.
More admirably, and perhaps more daringly, Leo has been an unashamed champion of the middle classes, and has even admitted to being middle class himself. That's braver than you think in this country. Right now, it's very easy to talk about the poor downtrodden and the marginals and all the poor unfortunates. But being middle-class is more unfashionable than ever, and speaking up for them is even more so.
But Leo Varadkar has consistently spoken up for the middle classes on issues of taxation, pointing out to John Drennan in this paper that the middle classes are ultimately the ones who pay the bills for social protection and all the other officially recognised good causes. He is also well aware that the middle classes are the engine of the domestic economy, with his great phrase, "Millionaires spend their money on yachts, the middle classes spend their money in shops". He has cautioned against making property tax a tax on living in Dublin, though he did not stop it from becoming one. He has even made the verboten suggestion that the middle classes are the ones who were hardest hit by this recession. All of which suggests that Leo Varadkar is reasonably comfortable with who he is, and not ashamed of it, and not ashamed to say things that might not play well to RTE or the Irish Times.
And in a way, what Leo Varadkar did last Thursday week epitomised the kind of decency we would like to associate with middle Ireland.
And maybe that's it. Leo grew up in middle Ireland and took some of the best of it, but because his family lineage on his father's side does not go back into the rare old toxic times in Ireland, maybe he was spared the worst of it. Varadkar is one of us but with just enough "other" about him to give him clarity on the things we all sometimes go along with in this country. That keen, relatively untainted, outsider's eye may be precisely what we need in this country now. Maybe they should even consider sending in Leo to clean up Justice in this country as he works his way to the top.